In the extraordinary predicament imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from across the globe had to redesign and reflect on their research and fieldwork plans. Researchers had to make-do of their projects and improvise based on the unforeseen challenges inflicted by the pandemic. In this article, I will discuss my experience of conducting fieldwork in Tejgadh, Gujarat in midst of the pandemic in December 2020. I outline my journey to the field, learning and adjusting, and rethinking Katz’s (1994) question – what constitutes as ‘field’ during fieldwork.
Journey to the ‘Field’
Prior to December 2020, I had not travelled outside of my home city Kolkata due to the threats imposed by COVID-19. I had virtually met colleagues at my AIF Fellowship host organisation Bhasha Research and Publication Centre. These initial interactions shaped my understanding of what my role would be going forward which was to work with Bhasha’s Museum of Voice, a part of the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh. With their help, I was introduced to the field site through various reports, articles, photographs, videos of the museum that gave me an understanding of the museum and their ongoing initiatives. Prior to fieldwork, I was looking forward to meeting everyone at Tejgadh to begin work and learn from the community. At the same time, I was apprehensive considering the uncertainty of the pandemic and risks my travel may put those around me – the colleagues at the museum and the local community. With a negative RT-PCR test in hand, I arrived in Tejgadh after six hours of travelling including a flight, bus, taxi, and a walk to Bhasha’s Adivasi Academy.
Based on my prior conversations with my colleagues, I understand that Bhasha’s Adivasi Academy is a vibrant place wherein many individuals stay and conduct research over time, facilitate the education of young people, and work towards illustrating the indigenous voice and memory through the museum. Apart from staff and visiting researchers, the Academy hosts 60 young children who had no access to formal education. However, when I arrived at Tejgadh and the Academy, there were no students, teachers, only a few staff who lived within the premises. Due to COVID restrictions, the residential school was closed and subsequently, the kids were home. As I walked towards the room that was kindly offered by my colleagues for quarantine purposes, I only recalled our conversations about the place to make sense of the field. The quiet and serene environment was not the ‘field’ I had heard of, yet I imagined the Academy and its activities through the narratives and my experiences during the pandemic.
Learning from the Field
Before beginning fieldwork, I had to quarantine myself for two weeks as per the government norms. I lived in isolation for days which helped me understand the ‘field’ better through its food, water, and weather. The above-mentioned photograph was the view from the room I was given to stay. Below the tree, as one can see, is a round place to sit. In normal times, the Academy would host conferences (locally known as chotros) wherein artists and other individuals from across the country and abroad would gather and host discussions that contribute towards social harmony and inclusivity. For me, the tree acted as a signifier of the crisis we were all witnessing – lack of touch and socially distant. During my quarantine period, every time I felt lonely inside the room, the tree reminded me of the significance of the project I was part of and why I was there in the first place. At first, I thought although I am in the field, but I cannot move around and conduct research due to the precautionary measures. Then I realised even in isolation one can experience the field. For instance, inside my room, I read the literature on the history of the Rathwa community in Tejgadh (see Devy 2013; Pandya 2010), I could see this tree for what it used to be rather than what it was at the time. Another instance would be the brief interactions that I would have every day with Chinabhai, the cook at the Academy. He would kindly keep food on a tray outside my room and we would chat regarding the local cuisines from a distance. He would explain the recipe, the process involved in making the dish and its significance within the community.
What is the ‘Field’ during the Pandemic?
Through these small instances, even in isolation, I was introduced to the field, the community and the academy I was going to be a part of as an AIF Clinton Fellow. Traditionally, the fieldwork process involves face-to-face interactions, walking around the community, building rapport, and asking questions that may contribute towards the goal of the research. However, as argued by geographer Cindi Katz (1994), “under contemporary conditions of globalisation and post-positivist thought in the social sciences, we are always already in the field – multiply positioned actors, aware of the partiality of all our stories and the artifice of the boundaries drawn in order to tell them”. Thus, it is not necessary that the ‘field’ in ‘fieldwork’ be a fixed geographical region. As a result of the pandemic, the field may be physical, virtual, as well as in-between. To conclude, the pandemic has made us all rethink our methods for fieldwork. The idea of the ‘field’ is not constant, and the pandemic allowed us to navigate and unpack the ‘field’ that is continuously evolving.
Devy, Ganesh. (2013). Culture and Development, an Experiment with Empowerment. Published: Field Actions Science Reports, Special Issue 7. Accessed here: http://journals.openedition.org/factsreports/2404
Katz, Cindi. (1994). Playing the Field: Questions of Fieldwork in Geography. Published: The Professional Geographer. Accessed here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.0033-0124.1994.00067.x
Pandya, Vishvajit. (2010). Rathwa Pithoro: Writing about Writing and Reading Painted Ethnography. Published: Taylor and Francis Online. Accessed here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08949460490430307?